At least three people and one saloon had a part in the highway crash that killed 23-year-old Anton Gress.
He died when a drunken, cocaine-addled driver sped down the wrong lane of Interstate 25 near Santa Fe, causing a head-on wreck.
Gress’ parents also claimed the state Department of Transportation was partially responsible for his death.
State government denied any liability. But records I just obtained from a confidential source show the state paid Gress’ parents $450,000 to drop their lawsuit.
Gress died the night of Sept. 24, 2016. His family’s lawyers pointed out that a state traffic engineer in 2008 had identified Exit 290, the Lamy interchange, as a launching point for wrong-way drivers.
They said Clara Avina, the driver who killed Gress, most likely had wound through this spot and onto the wrong lane of the highway.
During a trial, the state’s attorney argued there was no evidence Avina was ever on the Lamy interchange the night of Gress’ death.
Then-District Judge David Thomson halted the trial Oct. 24 after lawyers for each side announced in open court that they had reached a settlement.
State settlements are kept secret for at least 180 days. The Gress case was to be sealed for a longer stretch — until Dec. 3.
My source on Tuesday provided me with a copy of the settlement. One way or another, the public pays the cost of lawsuits. The amount of a taxpayer-funded settlement should not be hidden for months or years.
In this case, the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham belatedly agreed. It decided Tuesday evening the document should be released to me by the state. Her staff didn’t know I already had the settlement records in hand when it made this decision.
In my view, the Legislature should approve a law banning any waiting period for the public to learn the details of a legal settlement. Once a deal is reached and signed, there is no reason to keep the public in the dark.
The state did not admit to any responsibility in Gress’ death.
“It is understood and agreed that the payment is being made in compromise and is not to be construed as an admission of liability,” the settlement states.
State government agreed to pay Gress’ parents “merely to avoid litigation and buy their peace.”
Even under the state’s 180-day prohibition for releasing the terms, the Gress settlement typically should have been made public this month.
After the settlement was announced in open court, state lawyer Ripley Harwood asked the judge if he could debrief jurors. Nine of the 13 jurors returned to open court to answer his questions and those of the family’s lawyers, Daniel O’Friel and Pierre Levy.
Gress’ parents signed the settlement agreement a few weeks later on Dec. 11. But the clock for the 180 days to unseal the settlement did not start running then.
Ken Ortiz, Cabinet secretary of the General Services Department, said neither the judge nor the lawyers entered an order to dismiss the case.
After I asked the state for the settlement records, its lawyer went to court and requested that the lawsuit be dismissed. This happened June 6. Ortiz’s legal department then set a December date for release of the settlement records.
But to his everlasting credit, Ortiz took the unusual circumstances into account and pressed for the state to surrender the settlement document. He said the state would provide it as soon as Wednesday.
As for the case itself, lawyers on opposing sides agreed on one point only: Avina was mostly responsible for Gress’ death.
Avina, 43, also died in the crash. A medical examiner’s report listed her blood-alcohol level at 0.29 percent, or more than three times the threshold for drunken driving. She also had cocaine in her system.
A barkeep at PC’s Restaurant and Lounge on Airport Road was so alarmed by Avina’s condition that he took away her car keys.
Too bad he then handed the keys to a man who said he would drive Avina home. The self-appointed driver stopped to buy beer, leaving the car idling while he went in the store.
Avina slid into the driver’s seat and raced away. Soon after, she maneuvered into the wrong lane of Interstate 25.
Gress, a recent college graduate who thought his life was just beginning, became her victim.
PC’s Restaurant and Lounge previously paid an undisclosed settlement to Gress’ family.
State government should not be in league with bars that can operate secretly when it comes to settling lawsuits. It’s heartening that Ortiz and Lujan Grisham’s lawyers agreed.
Knowing details of the settlement makes this case no less tragic. Now the Department of Transportation should follow through with plans to equip the troublesome interchange with devices that will warn motorists and police officers when a wrong-way driver has entered the highway.
Several states already do this. Gress’ parents want to see it happen in Santa Fe.
They hope it will spare someone else from unspeakable pain.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.